Racing: Piggott's support steers Shaamit

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When the jockeys turn up at Epsom on Saturday for the Derby one man above all others will be asked for his opinion on the race. He will be one of the few without a ride.

Lester Keith Piggott no longer graces our racecourses, his bottom in the clouds, but come Derby time there is no figure that punters and fellow riders would rather consult. In early June there are more pilgrimages to receive Piggott's knowledge at Newmarket than the oracle at Delphi ever used to attract. When Alan Munro won the 1991 Blue Riband on Generous he partly dedicated his success to the Long Fellow, who had tutored him on the threats of Epsom Downs.

Even when he was a fragile veteran way past his zenith this was always the race that showed Piggott in his pomp. During the very late years he managed to manoeuvre bad horses into good positions and helped them finish closer than they should have done.

This year Piggott, who is still a cavalier on the gallops, is involved with a horse which is assuredly not bad, and probably quite outstanding if the old man's private thoughts have been reported correctly. The nine- times winner of the Classic has had some saddle time this spring aboard Shaamit, who will be sent into engagement by Piggott's son-in-law, Willie Haggas.

For broad consumption, the Somerville Lodge trainer tells the world that Piggott has sat on the horse just once and has been mildly impressed by Shaamit's balance. Other sources will tell you that the former champion thinks the son of Mtoto is up to winning a Derby, even on his seasonal debut.

If Shaamit does win there will doubtlessly be those who suggest there should be further embroidery to Epsom's Piggott Gates, which will be opened for the first time this afternoon. The great man will be depicted on the barrier along with his Derby successes, nine Coronation Cups and six Oaks winners.

Piggott will be one of 60 jockeys who have ridden in a Derby celebrating at the racecourse this evening. Others include the Australian Ron Hutchinson and Buster Parnell, who travels from Denmark to contribute his anecdotes.

This gathering is part of much greater promotion for the Classic this year in the wake of a dwindling profile. One prayer that has been answered is for a more eclectic Derby, a race that was in danger of becoming a private family sweepstakes between the Maktoums. "The people who are leading contenders for the race this year is a huge bonus," Edward Gillespie, the director of racing at United Racecourses, said yesterday. "We've got Paul Kelleway, Mark Tompkins and the Piggott connection with Willie Haggas. There are maybe half a dozen horses who, if they win, people will say 'how wonderful'. There is a glow about the race."

The early messages are encouraging. The boat-like Queen's Stand is guaranteed to have people hanging from the gantries like passengers on the Titanic after the ice arrived in the bar, while bookings for the Club enclosure are already 50 per cent up on the final figure 12 months ago. The great unknown is how many herds will come to the Serengeti that is the Hill, however. The jungle of competition this weekend includes European Championship football, Test cricket and Grand Slam tennis.

"It's a little nerve-wracking when you consider that 70 per cent of the people you want to turn up are out there and haven't contacted you yet," Gillespie said. "But I think there has been an appreciation of our efforts and the owners, trainers, riders and media seemed to have felt a responsibility towards our event."

Despite this upbeat rallying call, Gillespie knows there are thunderbolts waiting if this year's Saturday Derby does not work, the wolves who will insist the event moves back to its mid-week slot. "Here we are on the Monday before feeling quite enthusiastic," he said. "You'd better call me next Monday to see how I really feel."